Friday 15 Oct 2021 | 00:46 | SYDNEY
Friday 15 Oct 2021 | 00:46 | SYDNEY

In Libya, the hard work is just beginning

23 August 2011 08:38

Philip Eliason, who we interviewed yesterday, is a Middle East specialist and former diplomat who has worked on Libyan issues. This piece also appears in today's Australian.

Yesterday morning a colonel in the Libyan army told me from Tripoli that the city was quiet after Sunday's shooting. The clearly exhausted and fearful colonel, who did not have a role in the war, said predictions of retributive killings were going to be proved true. He recalled Iraq in 2003 when the fall of the Ba'athist government in Baghdad unleashed several years of uncontrolled payback killings, hostage taking and lawlessness quite separate from the Sunni insurgency.

Like other Libyans, he had been listening to comments made by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogg Rasmussen that NATO would now start to take steps with the rebels' Transitional National Council to ensure a smooth transition of power and the establishment of a united and inclusive Libya, which has respect for human rights.

There is no doubt the TNC is still a maturing body of competing interests that has yet to describe how it will operate without the unifying persuasion of fighting the Qadhafi regime. Its manifesto for a new Libya reads well, coming as it probably does from substantial advice from members of NATO and the educated Libyan diaspora. It helped to win support for the TNC when, during the six-month conflict, it looked like splintering and faced queries about the credentials of some of the rebellion's supporters. This help has passed.

The TNC will face greater scrutiny as it moves to seize government. Signs of how the TNC will operate will be its approach to justice, human rights, political expression and association, and its judgments about when it might set a date for elections for an as-yet-to-be-defined constitutional form of parliament.

Over the past few months, the focus has been on fighting when it should have been more on post-conflict transition and stabilisation, inviting political engagement and maintaining the definition of the Libyan state. Now the TNC's members and their backers, largely eastern Libyan tribal confederations, will need to deal with all Libyans plus a growing weight of Western interests in the future of the country. The TNC has seen the wealth and power accrued by the surviving military backers of the 1969 Qadhafi coup and transmitted to their children and relatives. It knows the riches possible from Libya's oil and gas reserves and its diplomatic and economic influence.

One only needs to recall the rush to do business with Tripoli, including by Australia, as soon as Libya was obliged to halt its weapons of mass destruction program in 2004, and paid its Lockerbie compensation to buy its way back into a US-dominated international system.

Western supervision of the transition will be vital. Libya is state socialist by design. About 85% of jobs are supplied by the government; privatisation plans pressed in Libya as part of its internationalisation generally stalled or were at most limited. Plans for new cities, universities and infrastructure moved slowly — if at all — through a vast bureaucracy. Fickleness characterised nearly all business and it started from the top.

Stability and predictability will be key indicators for governance. The range of government will expand to meet public needs, but it must have a robust base in rule of law and agreed precepts of operation. The latter will take time. The Libyan saying, 'a judge is a lonely man', reflects on partiality and deal-making expected in the application of justice in a society where clan and tribal allegiance remains dominant.

Hopefully, justice can be established quickly and responsibly. A tribe does not fight across the country only to have its reward suddenly dissipated through democracy, good budget and resource management. The current state of Yemen, another tribal society, gives an exaggerated indication of what can happen in Libya.

Some assessments of needs of the new Libya have been under way in Benghazi with British and other assistance. The members of the International Contact Group for Libya, now the open civil war is ending, can establish more decisive steps to protect civilians and disarm combatants, receive returning refugees, establish distribution of food and fuel, repair and upgrade infrastructure, especially water, sewerage and electricity, as well as advise and facilitate political reconciliation.

Australia, as a leading international actor calling for military intervention to save Benghazi, should take an active part in this process.

Europe will emerge as the key player in the next phase of work. It already has a good understanding of Libya. It is at risk of barely controlled people movements from Africa through Libya to Italy and Greece. Libya was previously a prime transport hub with people movements being turned on or off by Tripoli as determined by its diplomatic or economic needs. And that was with a working state.

Europe, fearful of Russian energy diplomacy, has been keen to see its needs supplied from closer producers in Algeria and Libya. Oil and gas diplomacy will be, as it was in post-2003 Iraq, a pillar of Libya's external as well as internal politics.

There will be much to do to extract value from the fall of Muammar Qadhafi. Without Western air support, the revolution would have failed. The West delivered it and now we need to act again to help create a stable, productive and harmonious state drawing from our good and bad lessons in other difficult areas: the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Libya deserves better, and it can hopefully achieve it.

 Photo by Flickr user spengy.